Published on November 8th, 2013 | by EJC2
After the War: Reflections On Reporting In Post-Conflict Societies
This article was written as a reflective post after an event that took place on October 17 at the Frontline Club in London. In an evening that was organized to launch Granta magazine’s publication of an edition called “After the War”, seasoned reporters Frances Harrison and Lindsey Hilsum were invited to discuss the practice of reporting in post-conflict situations (Harrison reflected on her experiences in Sri Lanka; Hilsum discussed her work in Rwanda). See the discussion here.
What comes after war? How long does the shadow of violence linger in people’s memory? The post-conflict situation presents the phase in which the country must be rebuilt and the society mended. The declaration of peace is not the end-all to conflict. In many ways, it only represents the beginning of the process towards a truly peaceful attitude amongst citizens. This post examines some of the issues that journalists will have to be aware of when reporting in that fragile post-conflict situation, as well as the processes of reconciliation and reconstruction.
The journalistic enterprise, that is, the gathering of facts to gain an accurate understanding of what happened during the conflict, will often be difficult. Journalists might find themselves forced to refer to individual testimonies. What is more, people’s memories typically conflict, depending on which “side” of the conflict they were on, where they lived during the conflict, et cetera. It is because of such contradictions in personal experience that story-telling becomes an important practice in post-conflict societies: it creates awareness of the other sides’ understanding of the conflict. However, the timing for this kind of story-telling is difficult; if reporters are too soon in the portrayal of conflicting discourses it might spark tension. Or, if is too early after a war for people to express themselves, traumas may be traded down to the next generations.
If a war has ended, the television cameras often move on to cover other wars. But story-telling is still essential for the developments on the ground. And sometimes, journalism can serve as a tool in this new fight of “remembering versus forgetting”. In other cases, narratives of war-time are better expressed in other forms, like poetry or art.
Versions of truth
While individuals will have to learn to live with their own memories, society at large also has to move on from war. Governments – the new “winners” of the war – will settle on an official discourse to explain the conflict. Such grand narratives are meant to be accepted by everyone, so that later processes like the carrying out of justice can take place based on the discourse. Lindsey Hilsum experienced such issues with the Rwandan government, which after the genocides – in an attempt to bring together the communities – denied the existence of Hutu’s and Tutsi’s, instead referring to all Rwandans. In such cases, reporting journalists are confronted with issues of suppressed memories and “uncomfortable truths”; should they report only on the official version, or also search after individual narratives? Could the presentation of narratives that derive from the official story cause the renewal of tensions?
Relaying any version of events asks of reporters to choose their words carefully, as many terms can be associated with different narratives. After war, the “winners”’ of a narrative are likely to dominate and they will become the “good guys”. Words like “rebels”, “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” can all be used to refer to the same conflict party, depending on one’s point of view. Language becomes a very powerful tool in creating the understanding of a conflict, and the use of such terminology in journalistic coverage must thus be very carefully carried out.
“The media” and war
The coverage of war and post-conflict situations can have an impact on the ground. In some cases, like Rwanda, media outlets can become the tools of war propaganda. Alternatively, the media could also be used in an effort to bring peace. In any case, cutting off press freedom will likely be a negative choice in post-conflict development.
Journalistic war coverage is most likely, in the international arena, to influence the understanding of conflict. As explored above, conflict is often understood through various perspectives and narratives. But in reporting, often a “simple version” dominates, in which two warring parties are fighting for the same or opposed goals. Says Harrison: “People want the simple version of events and discourse. And, well, journalists want a simple story, too: poor citizens stuck in-between two warring sides, when the actual situation could be much more complex.”
Likewise, peace is an intricate business. Peace allows for journalists to explore the more complex causalities of the conflict, as well as its solutions. Peace-building is a long process, and one that can be an interesting subject for journalists to look into. A peace signing does not solve all of the issues. One conflict party might have been “defeated” by the other, but have the underlying causes that gave rise to the war been addressed, or could they spark discontent again? And what of the international community’s role and actions, both during the violence and in its aftermath?
Finally, something can also be said on the personal aftermath for reporters. Not only citizens, victims, combatants and politicians must deal with the impacts of war. Correspondents, who have worked in war zones, also have their own narrative and memories. Both Hilsum and Harrison mentioned a kind of guilt that stayed with them after the conflicts in “their” regions had ended: Hilsum felt regret for not having recognized the act of genocide (another term that can be heavily charged) when it was already happening; and Harrison spoke of a feeling of “moral responsibility”, especially towards her journalistic sources, who would sometimes continue to contact her after her assignment had ended. Says Harrison: “The more you know, the more information you get, you start to feel a moral responsibility towards the people and the story.”
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